This is the third part in a mini-series of blog posts all aiming to address the big concerns that parents and practitioners tend to have about children using technology. The themes were derived from a series of discussions, but particularly a pair of workshops on technology and autism held in February 2016 as part of Innovative Learning Week at the University of Edinburgh. Previous posts discussed: is screentime bad for kids? and is technology addition real? Here we focus on the impact of technology use on physical development and health.
What’s the link between technology use and physical development?
There are two main arguments which tend to be put forward here, that I have come across most commonly in audience questions when I’ve been talking about research on technology and child development. The first is that using technology leads to obesity, because it is a sedentary activity. The second is that interacting with technology at a young age inhibits appropriate fine motor development, such as ability to use a ‘pincer grip’. I’ll have a look at them one at a time.
Does using technology make you fat?
This is a point of view which has been put across widely in the popular media – this article is an example. The argument basically goes that watching TV and playing video games means we are sitting around more (possibly also scoffing junk food at the same time) and doing less exercise. There are a few things to say about this.
First, the usual arguments apply about the limitations of the evidence. As in the case of concerns aorund the impact of screentime on child behaviour (e.g. attentiveness, hyperactivty, conduct problems) most of the studies which find links between being overweight and using a lot of technology are not well designed to provide conclusive evidence. Longitudinal data which can attempt to reveal causal relations are rarely reported. When we rely on cross-sectional data, we risk conflating technology use leading to weight gain, with the opposite pattern: overweight children play more video games and watch more TV – perhaps due to lack of alternatives with which they feel comfortable. Another problem is that sample sizes are too small and as a result studies cannot account for the many variables which could have an impact on both obesity and technology use. For example, people growing up in disadvantaged areas may have few opportunites for safe, outdoor play and may also not have access to a nutritious diet. These factors could simultaneously result in high technology use (e.g. TV watching) and increased weight.
Second, the argument that recent rises in obesity are linked to increasing presence of technology in our lives rest on a pair of untested assumptions. Challenging these assumptions clearly demonstrates how flimsy the arguments are.
Assumption 1: Technology use has replaced “running around outside”. In fact there is no evidence for this. The argument is based on a simplistic, dichotomous model of child activities – you are either inside playing on an XBox, or outside kicking a football. This model leaves no space for reading books, painting your nails, doing a jigsaw puzzle, having a pretend tea party with dolls, or racing cars around your Scalextric. All of these activities, which played a major role in my childhood, and continue to feature in my children’s lives, are discounted. If technology is ‘taking over’ surely it is taking over from these sedentary, indoor activities as much as it is ‘taking over’ from the running around outdoors type games? In fact, if anything, technology is more likely to feature as an alternative to other similarly sedentary activities. Personally, I rarely present my kids with a choice between a trip to the park and staying in to watch a movie. If we’re going out, we choose between different ‘going out’ options. When we are at home, TV or video games compete with the other, domestic, and relatively static options available in the toy basket.
Assumption 2: Technology use is sedentary. This echoes my previous complaints about lumping together all technology use under the umbrella of ‘screentime’. Technology today is varied and complex. Yes, children might watch TV, or play video games while sitting on the sofa. But devices ike the Wii or Kinect mean that technology can be very active. In fact there is evidence that using these types of technology can be a good way to encourage children to get into exercise in the first place.
Can we have a recap?
Certainly. My objection to the ‘technology use leads to weight gain‘ argument then is twofold. First, we don’t have the direct data to support this claim, and the data we do have is flawed in precisely the way which would lead to false conclusions about spurious links between technology use and physical health. Second, the theoretical model on which the link between technology and weight is based, supposes that a) technology use has replaced more active forms of play and b) that technology use is entirely sedentary. These asumptions are untested and, I would argue, illogical.
Wasn’t there a second argument about technology and physical development though?
Yes. The second way in which technology use has been linked to physical development is through concerns about fine motor development. These revolve around the possibility that interaction with a 2-D surface prevents children from rehearsing other forms of fine motor action, like pincer grips (illustrated above). In later childhood, people have argued that if children are allowed to type they will lose not just handwriting skills but a bunch of other stuffwhich is acquired through that learning.
Does that link hold up any better?
Well, no, not really. The purported links between technology interactions are subject to many of the same criticisms that I have of the arguments about technology and obesity. First, there is little direct evidence, and in particular, nothing robust which can tell us about the relatively recent increase in use of 2D touchscreens by young children. This is worth exploring, but an open mind is key. An example is this early study of how children aged 2 years old responded to the introduction of a new touchscreen device. The authors write:
“As early as the age of 2, children easily and naturally interact with the touch screen interface in a way that is different from a traditional computer. The teachers in the classrooms needed to provide little instruction for the 2 year old children to begin actively using the iPads in a productive manner. “
The same evidence – that children quickly and easily learn how to use a touchscreen which is both intuitive and engaging – is put to negative use in arguments about technology being bad for young children. Too easy to use. Too appealing. Without thorough data capturing both process and outcome, imposing an external, negative framework, perhaps out of fear of the unknown, utterly lacks justification.
And what about the assumptions underpinning this claim?
As in the case of the purported influence of technology on weight gain, the arguments about fine motor development and technology rests on a series of assumptions which are, at best, untested and at worst, false. First, they assume that working with technology has replaced other domains in which fine motor control develops. This strikes me as patently false. I cannot imagine any toddler who spends so much time tapping and swiping a touchscreen that they literally have no opportunity to practice other fine motor skills, such as picking up or manipulating objects. Even if you could present just such an extreme case study, that would not amount to evidence on normal use of touchscreens.
Additionally, again echoing objections to the previously-examined argument, fears about technology’s impact on fine motor control rests on the assumption that all technology use is based on either passive viewing (like TV) or 2D touchscreens. This ignores the role of technology-based toys (like these), interactive tangibles (like these), and the dexterity required to use a video game controller. Furthermore, this logic discounts the usefulness of the gestures required for successful touchscreen use – such as the single finger point, a movement which is core to our social communication framework. Many parents enrolled in our iPad trial specifically mentioned how using the iPad helped their children to practice this important gesture.
So, technology all the way…?
As ever, not quite. I would always argue that our children are best supported by having opportunities to experience all sorts of different ways to play and learn. This should include running around outside, playing with lego and a whole range of other activities which are both fun and have multiple benefits. Crucially, I would put technology in this list, not outside it in a separate category of its own. Technology can be a positive part of our repertoire as parents and as educators. Like playing with lego, like running around outside, technology won’t be helpful to children if it is the only the thing they ever do. Technology won’t be helpful to children if we use it in exactly the same way over and over again (like constantly re-building precisely the same lego house, for example). Technology is not the solitary, sedentary activity which it is so often reduced to. Technology offers a way to jump about, to link to people around the world, to get into new activities especially when these are hard for us, like the child who is unconfident about joining in with sports, developing some abilities at home using a Wii.
Anything else you wanted to add?
Yep. What about mental health? In many pieces of writing on technology and obesity or technology and fine motor development, the possibility that technology might have some benefit to offer is discarded and along with it, the well being of some readers. Think of the struggling parent for whom technology provides a way to engage a challenging child, or a way to access the wider world when circumstances are otherwise limited. Think of the young person who has achieved great things in online gaming only to be told that their hard work and skill is worthless – even harmful. Think of the child who struggles to communicate or present their work on paper – if we can provide that opportunity through typing, we should at the very leastrecognise that any disavantage whch comes from not practising handwriting skills needs to be weighed against the advantage conferred by having a way to share their learning.
When making the case for restraint in the use of technology, we need not only to ground our arguments in concrete evidence, but also to consider the possible negative impacts that restricting access might have. Specifically, in the context of this post about technology and physical development, let’s not make the mistake so often repeated, of prioritising physical health goals over mental health.